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The free agency effect

Posted by Darren Urban on June 9, 2011 – 4:13 pm

So I was looking over this ESPN.com article by Football Outsiders about the top 10 most disappointing NFL free agents of the past 25 years and it got me thinking about the Cardinals (although no, there are no Cards on the list). My first full free-agent offseason came in 2001, when the Cards — up against the salary cap — chose to sign Seattle guard Pete Kendall as their one big purchase, to team with center Mike Gruttadauria from the year before and first-rounder Leonard Davis to build the “Big Red Line.” Kendall, as always, was blunt; when he came in for his press conference and was asked, why the Cardinals, he said, “Because they paid me the most money.”

That’s usually how it goes.

The bottom line is that, occasionally, help comes via free agency. More often than not, you acquire the best players through the draft because, aside from a player here or there, there is a reason a team lets a player go. Usually it’s because they don’t see him being worth the money he commands on the open market. (Karlos Dansby? Maybe he was. Antrel Rolle? Probably not.) I would argue that, if you charted all the “bigger-name” free-agent signings in the NFL over the years, there would be more that underperformed to expectations rather than met them.

Anyway, you look back through the years and think about the “key” free agents the Cards signed. How many provided the impact that people thought they would provide the day they signed?

  • 2002 – CB Duane Starks, TE Freddie Jones
  • 2003 – QB Jeff Blake, RB Emmitt Smith, S Dexter Jackson
  • 2004 – DE Bertrand Berry (now this one was a real winner, even with Bertrand’s later injuries)
  • 2005 – DE Chike Okeafor, QB Kurt Warner (OK, that one turned out pretty well)
  • 2006 – RB Edgerrin James (Edge was actually pretty effective, but certainly not the star his contract said he should be)
  • 2007 – T Mike Gandy, C Al Johnson, CB Rod Hood (The Cards decide not to get FA “stars” under Whiz, just pieces to the puzzle).
  • 2008 – DE Travis LaBoy, NT Bryan Robinson
  • 2009 – CB Bryant McFadden
  • 2010 – QB Derek Anderson, LB Joey Porter, LB Paris Lenon, K Jay Feely

Certainly a mixed bag over the years. The biggest disappointment? No, I’m not going with Anderson — remember, he was signed to be Matt Leinart’s backup, so how much disappointment can there be? (Careful now …) I think I’d probably go with Duane Starks, who parlayed his spot in that great Ravens defense into the idea he could be a shutdown corner, which he wasn’t, especially on a team that sometimes used Fred Wakefield as the right defensive end (Fred was a great guy but didn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of quarterbacks). Realistically, Emmitt probably provided what everyone expected and so did Edgerrin, especially since he never seemed to fit Whisenhunt’s style (and was clearly at the end, which was proven out after the Cards let him go).

Berry, by far, was the best signing, based on his 2004 season alone. I would have loved to see what sack numbers he would have had if he hadn’t gotten hurt every year after that. UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Some of you want to know how I could ever pick Berry over Warner. The simple fact is that Berry, as a free-agent signee, impacted imemdiately. Warner’s time in Arizona didn’t come across that well until after a change in coaches. That was Warner’s third season as a Card by then. Am I splitting hairs? Maybe. But in the context of this discussion, it’s difficult to argue that, as a free agent coming in, Berry didn’t produce better than Warner.

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Less Dockett means more Dockett?

Posted by Darren Urban on March 23, 2011 – 11:34 am

A little earlier today, Darnell Dockett tweeted out this message to the world: “ONE of my weakness is I have to rotate EARLY in the game! I feel like I can’t come out but watching this film its to my advantage that I do!” It’s an interesting self-evaluation by the Pro Bowl defensive lineman, and one that speaks to the importance of depth.

While Dockett did make the Pro Bowl as an alternate, there is little question is impact was not as great in 2010 as it had been in 2009 (Dockett still had five sacks, five quarterback pressures, 11 quarterback hits and three fumble recoveries this past season). When you have a high-end player, you’d rather have him out there. And Dockett isn’t the kind of guy who wants to sit either, something I am sure probably was ramped up even more after he signed his large contract extension.

But if he can rotate out more early in games, that could make a difference late in games. Again, depth will be a factor — as of now, defensive linemen Bryan Robinson, Gabe Watson, Kenny Iwebema and Alan Branch are not under contract for 2011 — but shuffling Dockett is a good idea. The fact it came from Dockett himself might even be more important. The self-awareness to see weaknesses is always a good thing.

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Who is expiring?

Posted by Darren Urban on March 3, 2011 – 2:53 pm

Regardless of the status of the CBA, the Cardinals have a chunk of players whose contracts will expire whenever the league year ends. What that means for free agency is uncertain because the CBA will address those rules. But as an FYI, here is a list of the current Cardinals who will have their contract run out this offseason. If a player has an asterisk, he has at least four accrued seasons in the NFL:

  • FB Nehemiah Broughton
  • RB Tim Hightower
  • FB Reagan Maui’a
  • RB Jason Wright*
  • WR Max Komar
  • WR Steve Breaston*
  • WR Early Doucet
  • TE Ben Patrick
  • TE Stephen Spach
  • T D’Anthony Batiste
  • C Ben Claxton
  • G Alan Faneca*
  • T Brandon Keith
  • G Deuce Lutui*
  • C Lyle Sendlein*
  • DL Alan Branch*
  • DL Keilen Dykes
  • DE Kenny Iwebema
  • DL Bryan Robinson*
  • DT Gabe Watson*
  • LB Curtis Gatewood
  • LB Cyril Obiozor
  • LB Reggie Walker
  • S Hamza Abdullah
  • CB Michael Adams
  • CB Trumaine McBride
  • S Matt Ware*
  • P Ben Graham*

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Friday before the Niners

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2010 – 4:01 pm

No reason to draw this edition of “Friday before” out. It’s New Year’s Eve, you’re all waiting to bring in a new year tonight and I’m in the same boat. I suppose if this game was to crown the division champ that’d be something else, but it’s not.

As for the importance of winning this game in particular, well, I’ll let coach Ken Whisenhunt speak for the team.

“Some people want us to do bad so we will do better in the draft — I don’t know,” Whisenhunt said. “I think for a football team, for us, it’s important you finish well. That’s something we have made strides in doing. Just like in the ’07 season propelled us into the offseason, and the next year we went to the playoffs.

“I’m not saying that going to the playoffs or having a great season is tied into how we play this game. But I think there’s no question, winning the game against Dallas has been tremendous for us, our young players, our organization to show right mindset what we have to do it week in and week out.”

— The fact the 49ers are willing to start Alex Smith this week means to me that offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is calling the shots on that side of the ball. Smith was always the guy Johnson leaned toward to execute the offense he wanted to put out there after he replaced Jimmy Raye.

— Who said it: “It makes it difficult when you’re changing quarterbacks because you have to build that chemistry with your quarterback. You want to know the guy you’re going to be up with because at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be on the same page.”

Steve Breaston? Larry Fitzgerald? Try 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Once again, underscoring the issues any team has when it doesn’t really know about its most important position.

— One final QB note for this game. Amazingly, the Cards-49ers meetings still can’t get a matching quarterback battle. Since the teams joined the same division in 2002, the last time both teams had the same quarterback start in both games during the season was 2003 (Blake v Garcia). This year, neither team can pull it off (Anderson v Troy Smith a month ago, Skelton v Alex Smith this Sunday).

— Now is when we talk possible retirements after the season. Safety Kerry Rhodes tweeted a strong hint today that defensive lineman Bryan Robinson will be done after the season, although B-Rob later told Kent Somers he hasn’t made a final decision yet. Guard Alan Faneca is mulling the end too and it’s something a lot of players pause to consider (although usually only briefly) as a rough season ends.

— Since the last three Cards-49ers games have been basically lousy, I’m hoping for something better Sunday. The 49ers beat up the Cards the last two games and that 2009 season opener – a SF win – was a testament to uneven opening-game play.

— With star linebacker Patrick Willis out, the Cards should benefit. Willis has been a pain to the Cards. Maybe Beanie and/or Hightower can go off.

— After failing to target Breaston and only throwing towards Fitzgerald three times last week, I expect John Skelton to switch that up. And frankly, I think that’s important for the Cards and both players. I don’t think Fitz can make two TD catches to avoid his career-low, but maybe he can get his first since Kansas City Nov. 21. He’s not going to get the 18 catches he needs to equal last years’ 97, but he can get 80 more yards to match his 2009 yardage total.

— It’s been a long year for everyone around the Cards. “I think we found our identity,” Faneca said, and then paused to consider. “It just didn’t translate.”

Unfortunately, no. Talk to you in San Francisco. Happy New Year everyone.

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The flip of 43 and 34

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2010 – 3:35 pm

The Cardinals have used more of the four down linemen look the past two games in an effort to slow opposing running attacks and, more importantly, to make up for injuries at linebacker. This has caused more than a few of you out there to wonder/inquire about/insist the Cardinals switch from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3.

I have mentioned before it wasn’t going to happen, but since coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about it today: “As far as making a wholesale change, that’s not something I even want to consider right now.”

The Cardinals have never abandoned using 4-3 looks, and the defense has been a bit of a hybrid since Whisenhunt arrived. The 3-4 bent has become more pronounced as the years went on, in large part because the Cards have made the effort to bring in players that fit that scheme better. That’s precisely why nothing will change. It’s easy to look at defensive linemen like Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Dan Williams and Bryan Robinson and think the better players right now are on the line than linebacker.

In fact, that’s the main reason why the Cards have used more 4-3 recently, because the injuries at linebacker have sapped any depth. Will Davis, Clark Haggans and Joey Porter — three of the top six ‘backers — have been significantly banged up (or in Davis’ case, sidelined for good). Davis and O’Brien Schofield, despite being college defensive ends, couldn’t be that in the NFL (too small) and their use as a linebacker would be significantly minimized in a 4-3 scheme.

On the line, Whisenhunt said Williams could operate as a 4-3 DT and the others could adapt. But Williams is probably better suited to be a nose in 3-4. Campbell probably works better as a 3-4 end than a 4-3 end, and even Dockett seems to fit better in a 3-4 than an undersized 4-3 DT. (There’s also depth to consider; Branch, Watson and Robinson are all free agents after this season). Going forward, the Cards see their personnel as a 3-4 fit.


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Iwebema likely done and Beanie’s situation

Posted by Darren Urban on November 8, 2010 – 11:37 am

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said DE Kenny Iwebema will have more tests done to his knee, but the coach said he is “not optimistic” and the fear is that he tore his ACL. If that’s true, Iwebema will be done for the season, a blow to the Cards’ special teams and a blow to Iwebema, who has dealt with his share of health issues (most notably the tumor he had removed from his chest during 2009’s offseason). If Iwebema is out, it likely opens the door for Bryan Robinson to play more end and to open up game work for Gabe Watson, who has been inactive most of the first half of the season.

LB Paris Lenon (ankle) is the other injury the Cards are watching after the game.

— Whisenhunt said the reason RB Beanie Wells didn’t play a lot Sunday was a lack of practice time. “The way the game went, with the offensive packages we were using to attack those guys, Beanie just hadn’t had a lot of reps on,” Whisenhunt said. “That was what it was about more than anything. Hopefully he won’t have any issues this week. I think if the game had gone differently and we had been able to run the ball a bit better later in the game, we would have used the packages he was comfortable with and we would have seen more time with him.”

— Whisenhunt acknowledged two three-point hard losses are hard and “emotionally it takes a toll.” But the coach remained steadfast in the belief progress was being made and the goal of winning the division remains possible. As to whether the players buy into that, “the test will be on Wednesday” when they return to practice, rather than today when the raw wound of Sunday’s loss probably hasn’t healed yet.

I’ll have more later after the players’ availability.

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Ware, Iwebema sit

Posted by Darren Urban on October 10, 2010 – 11:36 am

The Cardinals’ inactives list is out, and safety Matt Ware (ankle) and defensive end Kenny Iwebema (knee) are both out today. That means the three nose tackles are all active — Bryan Robinson, Gabe Watson and Dan Williams — with Robinson’s ability to play defensive end as well. Cornerback Tru McBride is inactive for the first time too, benched for newcomer Brandon McDonald. The rest of the list:

  • WR Steve Breaston (knee)
  • WR Early Doucet (sports hernia)
  • QB John Skelton
  • C Ben Claxton
  • LB Alex Hall

Among the Saints’ inactives are defensive starters CB Tracy Porter and DE Will Smith and RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.

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Dockett: Play, not talk, does the talking

Posted by Darren Urban on October 8, 2010 – 12:44 pm

Darnell Dockett hasn’t had much to say recently — he has barely posted on Twitter and has avoided interviews — because right now, he doesn’t see a reason to talk.

“There is too much talking and not enough playing football,” the defensive tackle said. “That’s honestly how I have been approaching the last week — don’t talk about nothing and go play football, and maybe if people see me doing it they will do it too.”

Dockett said he knows if he doesn’t make the effort, someone (I assume he means fans and media) will talk about it. He noted that extra work can’t hurt him or anyone else, that when the day ends at 2:15 every day “it don’t mean you have to get off the field. I always feel every Wednesday and Thursday an extra  25, 30 minutes adds up to a great season. The field is there, the weight room is there, the film is there, anything you need to do extra is there, and that’s obviously what it needs to be. We need to put more time in everything, the whole team.”

Dockett said he did see more focus this week.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the message has gotten across to the team that the best players have to play better. You would think Dockett would be in that group and Dockett, after a moment, agreed.

“I see a hell of an effort and that’s what I bring every game,” Dockett said. “I try to hold myself to a higher standard. I honestly don’t think he was talking to me, but I could be wrong … as a matter of fact, I’m not going to say I could be wrong because I would be wrong if I said that, so Im not trying to excuse myself. We made a lot of mistakes.”

— DE Kenny Iwebema (knee) and S Matt Ware (ankle) are questionable and will be game-time decisions. WRs Steve Breaston and Early Doucet are out for Sunday. DL Alan Branch (shoulder) and LB Paris Lenon (pelvis) are probable.

— Whisenhunt said there is a scenario where all three nose tackles — Bryan Robinson, Gabe Watson and Dan Williams — are active for a game, because Robinson can play end. That may be an option if Iwebema can’t go.

— Kurt Warner was back, taking in practice and getting ready for post-practice interviews as he and the FOX crew preps for Sunday’s TV broadcast.

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Williams’ weighty message

Posted by Darren Urban on October 4, 2010 – 12:57 pm

Rookie nose tackle Dan Williams was made inactive this past game because he didn’t make weight. He is supposed to be 327 pounds. He was 329. It doesn’t sound like much, but this staff has had so many issues with such things in the past — not only was there the Deuce Lutui/Herman Johnson situation in the preseason, but defensive lineman Alan Branch and Gabe Watson have dealt with it in the past — the coaches wanted to nip any problem in the bud.

It didn’t hurt that Watson — who, by the way, has been in the best shape of his career this year and remains about 10 pounds under the coaches’ maximum weight allowed — was waiting in the wings to come in to back up veteran Bryan Robinson.

Williams gets that.

“I messed up last week,” Williams said. “The coaches just said they’re not going to have that. I understand. I just have to get back to work and make sure I don’t drink those late-night Gatorades.

“I am in control of my situation. I didn’t hold up my end and Coach made the decision. I have to roll with it.”

Williams talked about how all three nose tackles have worked hard and it’s a difficult decision to decide which of the three to play. It wasn’t easy for Watson to sit those three games, and Watson acknowledged he doesn’t know if he’ll play again this week.

“My legs were kind of fresh,” Watson said. “I just wanted to do what I could to help the team … I know I had a good camp and preseason, and I practice hard every day. Even if I don’t get defensive reps I try to get after the offense on the (scout) team and help them out. They call me ‘Angry Gabe’ because I go so hard, but when I am inactive, I look at Wednesdays and Thursdays as my game days. It’s not hard. It’s only hard if you know you’re not doing everything you could be doing.”

Which includes watching what you drink if you are Williams — two 20 ounce G2 bottles apparently cost him.

“I got a little thirsty,” Williams said.

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Friday before the Chargers

Posted by Darren Urban on October 1, 2010 – 4:50 pm

I enjoy San Diego. I have been there many times, and had some good family vacations there. Given that the freaking temperature here in the Valley continues to boggle us at around 105 degrees now that we’ve reached October, 36 hours in San Diego sounds good.

Football-wise, it’s definitely an interesting trip to say the least. The Chargers are beat up, missing two key players because of contract squabbles, and apparently can’t tackle on special teams. They are 1-2, and are turnover machines – and still are favored by more than a touchdown. I suppose that says a little about where the Cardinals are right now, beat up themselves at wide receiver and still looking for offensive consistency and a true defensive identity.

I will say this: If the Cards emerge victorious this weekend – regardless of how it happens – this team will have earned its 3-1 record.

As for the details on this Friday afternoon …

I’ve mentioned this before but the Cardinals need a big effort on defense. They just do. Partly it’s because the Chargers have turned the ball over nine times in three games. Partly it’s because the Cards just don’t know what will happen offensively. Those turnovers are key, though (Duh, right?) The Chargers are ranked tops in the NFL in offense, which is based on yards, and the Cards know they haven’t been stellar in that regard.

“We have been giving up a lot more yards than we should,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “We know if we don’t play our game, they can expose us.”

Said safety Kerry Rhodes, “They are number one for a reason. They get a lot of big chunks. We give up the big one, we’re going to be in trouble.”

— On the other side of the ball, Derek Anderson will be tested. The passing game has been hot and cold even with Steve Breaston in the game and now Breaston isn’t. I like the potential of Stephen Williams and even Max Komar, but the question is whether potential helps enough right now.

— So then you think about Larry Fitzgerald and getting him the ball – again. Is he a decoy (not on purpose, but …)? Coach Ken Whisenhunt knows the Chargers may use even more resources to throw at Fitz. But, Whiz noted, “if you’re going to compromise your scheme to take away a certain player, it may open up certain areas and you can exploit it.”

— Fitzgerald expressed his concern in a Fitz-like way this week, talking about just wanting to double his catches from last week’s two, etc. Clearly, he and Anderson have to hook up on openings more often. Whisenhunt even mentioned missing on the big plays when they presented themselves last week, and it seems like there have been a couple each game in which Fitz could have broken loose and the connection just wasn’t made.

Fitz talked about getting on the same page, still preaching patience. Most dynamic duos have had a couple of years. He and Anderson have had three games. “Reggie Wayne and Peyton, Moss and Brady, they know each other, all their quirky moves,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what me and Derek need to do.”

Fitz said it felt like it was working better in Atlanta. Last week, not as much. “Hopefully this is the week it comes together,” he said.

— XTRA’s Mike Jurecki is reporting rookie nose tackle Dan Williams didn’t make weight this week so he won’t play in San Diego. If so, it’s a lot easier to make such a call with veteran Gabe Watson – who has been a healthy scratch the first three games – champing at the bit to finally play. (Bryan Robinson is the starter, so we’re talking about a backup anyway). It’s a big moment for Watson, who you know doesn’t want to be one and done. And it’s an wake-up call for Williams, who was regarded as a nose tackle who wouldn’t have to fight such things as much as guys like Watson and Alan Branch have the past few years.

— The game in San Diego will be blacked out locally because, for a second time in two home games, the Chargers didn’t sell out. It’s been an issue there, although quarterback Philip Rivers insisted it doesn’t affect the home-field advantage.

“We were 7,000 tickets or so short in the home opener, but you sure couldn’t tell,” Rivers said. “It was loud. … I don’t think that’s something us players get caught up into.”

— Another thing the Chargers haven’t had affect them too much – the missing stars, tackle Marcus McNeill and receiver Vincent Jackson. Rivers said everyone knew both would not show up, so there was no shock value. “We were able to have a whole offseason, a whole training camp a whole preseason knowing we weren’t going to have those guys,” he said. “It really hasn’t been a distraction.”

— Which special teams unit “wins” Sunday? Do the Chargers make up for their errors last week in giving up two TD kickoff returns? Do the Cards repeat The Hyphen’s exploits? Or at least cut down on two crucial punt return turnovers? “The toll it took on our defense, at the time, our defense was on a roll,” Whisenhunt said of the backbreaking notion of bad special teams plays. “I’m sure it’s a little the same thing with San Diego.”

— Finally, it stinks that Beanie Wells got hit with the $5,000 facemask fine from last week. But judging by this pic (by freelance photog Bruce Yeung, who had been reading my blog) it’s kind of tough to argue.

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